Lisa Kerr

Study program:
Current affiliation:
New York University

She is rethinking current approaches to incarceration and justice, focusing on the quality of a prison sentence rather than on the length of time served.

The Terms of Imprisonment: How Legal Systems Perceive and Govern the Quality of Punishment

Lisa's research builds upon a core insight about the modern prison, which is that a prison sentence entails a qualitative dimension that is not adequately controlled by law. Prison involves the administration of all aspects of life inside the total institution. Yet the legitimacy and severity of punishment is often assessed in isolation from the standard features and known limitations of penal institutions. Theorists, and judges, focus almost exclusively on questions of the proper length of confinement, rather than its proper character. When judges impose sentences, the penalties are abstract and idealized, and sentencing courts may know little of the actual conditions to which they are consigning individuals. Legal remedies on the back-end of sentence administration are often inadequate. Lisa's work aims to identify the legal concepts, judicial practices, and aspects of institutional design that might improve both the quality of prison law and the success of correctional outcomes. Her research considers how the legal and moral claims that justify the allocation of a prison sentence might also justify and account for the specific features of the sentence as delivered.

Lisa Coleen Kerr is a doctoral candidate in law at New York University. She specializes in the law of punishment, which spans sentencing, human rights, constitutional, administrative and prison law. Her doctoral research is a comparative examination of the ways that legal systems attempt to govern the contemporary prison. Lisa is a doctoral fellow of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Born in Saskatchewan, Lisa studied English at Simon Fraser University where she received a bachelor of arts. Lisa worked as associate editor for writer and publisher Alan Twigg at B.C. BookWorld, Canada's largest-circulation independent publication about literature. While on student exchange from SFU, Lisa studied the works of Franz Kafka with Dr. Jerry Zaslove in Prague. Ever since, she has been trying to gain entry to the law.

Lisa attended law school at the University of British Columbia. She served as law clerk at the BC Court of Appeal before working as litigation associate at the law firm of Fasken Martineau. Lisa discovered punishment studies while completing a master’s in law at New York University in 2009, working as research assistant to David Garland on his prizewinning book on the American death penalty, Peculiar Institution: America's Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition. Lisa returned to Vancouver as staff lawyer at Prisoners' Legal Services (PLS), Canada's only dedicated legal services office for incarcerated people. Under the expert guidance of PLS staff, Lisa learned how to litigate the systemic human rights challenges facing Canadian prisoners. During this time, she developed a proposal for doctoral research that would examine the gap between the conventional legal account of punishment and the realities of prison administration.

Lisa plans to pursue an academic career teaching law. She hopes to combine a scholarly path with legal work and activism. Her inspiring example is UBC Professor Michael Jackson, QC, a great criminal law teacher, prison historian, litigator and prison reformer. Lisa is currently working with the BC Civil Liberties Association on constitutional litigation concerning the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons. Lisa has also been deeply influenced by the work of Pivot Legal Society, a law reform organization that works collaboratively with people impacted by poverty and marginalization. Lisa is a member of Pivot's Sex Work Committee, a tireless legal team headed by sex work activist Katrina Pacey, working to eliminate harms associated with Canadian criminal laws.

  • May 2, 2018
    For the ninth consecutive year, Canadian Lawyer’s Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers will reward people who influence the laws, justice system, and legal profession in Canada and abroad today. Members of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation’s community have been nominated in four of the five categories.